The Pentagon’s premiere research shop is working to shrink all kinds of devices — from cryogenic coolers to vacuum pumps to radar to infra-red video cameras — down to the size of a chip. If it works, it could mean whole new classes of weapons and sensors for the American military — and new gadgets for the rest of us.
In yesterday’s Guardian, I described some of Darpa’s remarkable programs to reduce all sorts of devices to microchip scale. The idea is to produce, eventually, a new generation of "matchbook-size, highly integrated device and micro system architectures" including "low-power, small-volume, lightweight, microsensors, microrobots and microcommunication systems."
For the last several years, research circles have been buzzing, with talk of "lab-on-a-chip" sensors. These small devices used to detect and identify bacteria, viruses and other items of interest; as the name suggests, they are constructed on a micro-scale, so they can work with tiny amounts of material and (because distances and heat capacities are small) produce extremely fast results. Turns out, many of the developments in the itty-bitty lab world can be traced back to Darpa. In fact, one of the agency’s five divisions devoted to nothing but these microtechnologies.
Cooling is an issue for certain types of electronic components, such as thermal imaging sensors and anything superconducting. Providing this sort of cooling usually requires a supply of liquid and a lot of power, but Darpa’s Low Power Micro Cryogenic Cooler should solve that. It uses "micromachined thermal isolation structure" — cooling by the thermoelectric effect, when a current is applied. Using just a 10th of a watt of power, it’s supposed to chill a 4-cubic-centimeter volume to 200 degrees below zero. That means it can chill one specific component of a mini-machine, not a whole device.
Darpa is a little vague about what’ll become of this technology. "Transition of this technology is anticipated through industry, who will incorporate elements of the technology in current and future weapon system design," the agency notes.
One program that does have specific applications is Microsensors for Imaging (MISI). This aims to build extremely small cameras working in the shortwave infrared spectrum. Specifically, the program is focusing on a 10-gram version for microair vehicles (MAVs), as wel as a 200-gram, head-mounted system. The MAV version will have a "target recognition range" of at least 100 meters and a 40-degree field of view, with "high optical quality." Being on silicon, as well as being smaller, should make it very robust and reliable, compared to existing cameras.
This sounds like another handy device to have available. Once such a camera is available and can be cheaply mass-produced (another advantage of having it all on a chip) all sorts of applications become feasible. Sensors for intruder detection? Off-the-shelf plug-in video camera for your new ground robot? Terminal guidance system for bombs or missiles? Again, there are likely to be plenty of companies interested, and I suspect that foreign copies will turn up a few years later.
There are a whole host of other new devices involved, too. Read the complete article here, and watch out for further installments in Danger Room. Image: Micro Cryogenic Cooler/Darpa